“It’s estimated most human beings only use 10% of their brains’ capacity,” said Morgan Freeman–playing a well-known neurologist in the film Lucy. “Imagine if we could access 100%,” he continued. In the movie, Scarlett Johansson takes an experimental drug that allows her to use the other 90% of her brain. By accessing 100% of her human potential, she gains extraordinary capacities like telepathy and telekinesis.
While this makes for a great Hollywood action movie, in real life, the idea that we only use 10% of our brains has been debunked over and over again.
Misunderstandings, misreadings, or deliberate twisting of scientifically established facts are called neuromyths. Neuromyths are widely present in popular culture, but also in the field of education, where educators and parents may be eager to put into practice what they believe are facts about the way the brain works toward anticipated positive outcomes. The danger with neuromyths lies when these facts are not at all based in scientific evidence, and start influencing the way we teach .
As a matter of fact, a recent survey of educators from five different countries (UK, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, China) revealed that between 43% (Greece) and 59% (China) of teachers believe in the 10% of the brain myth . In addition, these false claims are often marketed alongside educational interventions or products that are not scientifically valid. Teachers are often targeted and receive up to 70 emails a year marketing these brain-based educational tools that are not backed up by neuroscience research .
Which beliefs about the brain impact the way you think about teaching and learning? Let’s explore some of the most popular neuromyths, the evidence debunking them, and alternative approaches you can take now toward positive and more realistic learning outcomes.
The 10 Percent Myth
The Myth: “I only use 10% of my brain.” This myth benefits many advertising campaigns and is often found in connection to brain-booster games or self-improvement products that promise to unlock unused brain resources .
The Facts: This myth seems to be widely held, but is untrue . There is no scientific evidence that confirms this myth, and research in neuroscience shows that there is no dormant area of the brain.
The Alternative: While people like the idea of tapping into unused cerebral capacities, striving for greater creativity and productivity in our existing lives is a great alternative. In his book The brain that changes itself, Doidge talks about the brain’s plasticity and capacity to continually change its structure and function. An insightful read for those of us who thrive for a better self.
The Left vs Right Brain Myth
The Myth: “I’m a right-brained person.” This myth typically involves categorizing rational and objective people as “left-brained” and intuitive and creative people as “right-brained.” 91% of surveyed teachers believe that differences between the left and right hemispheres account for individual learning differences . This myth could be damaging as it could lead students to believe they would not succeed in certain subject areas because of their brain’s structure or personality.
The Facts: While it is true that some cognitive abilities are associated with one side of the brain or the other (i.e., verbal skills), no data support the argument for a split left vs. right brain where each brain hemisphere is specialized in a thinking style and functions independently from the other–a concept called hemisphericity .
The Alternative: Despite our innate inclination to classify people and abilities, it is important to realize we possess complex skills and that the ability to understand things requires both hemispheres, working both together and independently at the same time. This NPR talk reflects on this widely held belief and describes what scientists really know about the right and left hemisphere of the brain.
The Learning Styles Myth
The Myth: “I’m a visual learner,” Similar to the left vs. right brain, another prevalent neuromyth in education is the belief that students have distinct learning styles–meaning that their ways of learning (i.e., visual, kinesthetic, auditory, etc) require different teaching practices .
The Facts: While some students may prefer different types of information delivery, there is no existing research to date to suggest that there is any benefit in teaching them in their preferred learning style . In fact, everybody uses a mix of these styles, and some of us are dominant in one or the other. We may also use one style in a situation and another under different circumstances .
The Alternative: There is a variety of ways to engage students with the material they are learning. One of the most popular teaching methods that incorporates both student-centered learning and the multiple representations of information is the Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a set of principles that helps teachers design flexible learning environments that adapt to the variability of learners. Check out our post on how to get started with UDL.
The Critical Window of Time for Learning Myth
The Myth: “I’m too old to learn this.” This misconception is often linked to the “myth of three,” which postulates that the brain only retains information during a critical period–rendering the first three years of a child’s life decisive for future development and success in life.
The Facts: While critical periods have been observed in animal behavior, scientists have agreed that these are not as delineated in human beings, and instead favor the term “sensitive periods” which can be impacted by many factors . Instead, research in neuroscience shows that different brain systems showcase different types and amount of changes with experience. This is called plasticity–the capacity that the brain has to change through learning . So while some skills can be acquired during optimal times (i.e., grammar rules), it doesn’t mean that exposure and training beyond that could not lead to changes and learning .
The Alternative: Many educators have been enthusiastic about the idea of a “growth mindset” in opposition to a fixed learning pathway. While the idea is popular, there is also growing concern that teachers might not have the resources to use the concept effectively in the classroom. For instance, a recent nationwide survey of K-12 teachers reported that 85% of them wanted more professional development in the area . One great way to get started is to look at the Mindset Kit, a set of online modules for teachers put together by The Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS), a research center in the psychology department at Stanford University/
How to Avoid Neuromyths
Start with skepticism! Look beyond mere claims and dig a little deeper to research the science behind these claims. For instance, research shows that we get seduced by explanations that are accompanied by images of the brain, no matter how random they are . This doesn’t mean being a complete pessimist, but to try to strike a balance between popular facts and scientific research. Is the claim being sold as a cure-all? What does the evidence say? Does it sound too simple? One of the best ways to do so is to be informed and knowledgeable about the brain.
Here are some of my favorite books and websites to learn the basics about how the brain works:
- Willingham, D. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. This is a great book about the biological and cognitive basis of learning. A resourceful, fun read.
- Jensen, E. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. A book that discusses how to create more effective classrooms by applying brain research to your teaching. Very informational and full of good implementation ideas.
- BrainFacts is both a website and an online book that looks at brain basics from a variety of perspectives, and provides an educator section specific to issues of teaching and learning.
- The brain from top to bottom is a website that presents an overview of brain basics. It also offers explanations at different levels, from beginner to advanced.
Interested in learning more about neuromyths? Here are some additional resources:
- Willingham, D. When can you trust the experts? How to tell good science from bad in education [book]
- Crockett, M. Beware neuro-bunk [TedTalk]
- Sperling, J. Neuromyths and learning [video]
- Pasquinelli, E. Neuromyths: why do they exist and persist? [journal article]
- Test your neuromyths knowledge [quiz]
Which neuromyths do you see around you? Share in the comments below.
Sarah Gretter is a PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology & Educational Technology at MSU. Her research focuses on Media & information literacy. Specifically, she is interested in the competencies that educators should acquire to successfully help students understand the functions of online media and information in our digital lives. She is also interested in student acquisition of 21st century digital skills, including media & information literacy, computational thinking, and online citizenship. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahGretter and check out her website: www.sarahgretter.
-  Besson, L. (Director). (2014). Lucy. France: Canal , Ciné , EuropaCorp, TF1 Films Production. ↩